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Like Mike Kelley himself, Superman, whose story propels this posthumous show, was born in the Rust Belt, created in 1933 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish teenagers in Cleveland, Ohio. Their tale of an extraterrestrial refugee living a double life in Middle America wasn’t too different from their own upbringing as Jews in the Depression-era Midwest. A Detroit native, Kelley (1954–2012) might have also identified with Superman’s interplanetary exile: A member of an Irish-Catholic, blue-collar family, Kelley became the toast of an art world whose underwriters were basically the same people who’d hollowed out his hometown’s industrial heart, leaving it on life support.
That may account for Kelley’s attraction to the subject here: The city of Kandor, Superman’s fictional birthplace on the doomed world of Krypton. In a minor plot point, arch-fiend Brainiac abducted the city before the planet exploded, shrinking it with a miniaturizing ray and stuffing it in a climate-controlled bottle; Superman eventually rescued it, keeping the bottle in his arctic redoubt as a reminder of all he’d lost.
In Kelley’s hands, Kandor represents both a longing for the past and a sociopathic distancing from others. As a found object, it’s apiece with his propensity for low-cultural dumpster diving and his dyspeptic view of mankind, reflected here in an installation shrouded by a gloom as stygian and chilly as the void between Krypton and Earth.
Swimming into view are Kelley’s light-up resin models of Kandor, glowing like infernal candies in red, green, orange-yellow and blue. They’re joined by backlit lenticular reproductions of the place as depicted in Superman comics over the decades; depending on where you are standing, the trapped metropolis appears and disappears from view. There’s also a large bell jar connected by a plastic hose to an industrial compressor, presumably pumping imaginary Kryptonian air. And everywhere are the chthonic tones of Kelley’s ambient soundtrack, a mix of hissing air and sustained bass notes.
The threat of asphyxiation is rendered erotic in the show’s video centerpiece: A Sadean horror movie in which Superman’s Fortress of Solitude gives way to Dagobah’s cave of the Dark Side. Its set, a spray-foam lava tube containing another Kandor model, is included here as a sculpture you can enter and retrace the steps of a cast that includes a damsel in a wedding gown, a clown more scared than scary and an Ace Frehley look-alike dressed as an 18th-century fop. They and other characters play out a demented cavalcade of rape fantasies in a disturbing, endless loop.
Though the other works in the show were made between 1999 and 2009, this video epic dates from the year before Kelley’s suicide, and it’s tempting to wonder how much of it stemmed from his state of mind at the time. Still, it’s always dicey to link an artist’s work to his or her life, especially when it ends tragically. Suffice to say, for whatever reason, Kelley left this mortal coil with his vision of an unredeemable humanity intact.—Howard Halle